Thursday, December 20, 2012

Shut Down All Electronic Devices...Except E-Readers

It took me a long time to finally give in and get a Nook (or rather accept my dad's hand-me-down), and I must say that I've really taken to it. It's much easier to carry on the train, and I can easily read it in one hand while holding on for dear life with the other on the cta as I commute to and from work each day. The technology makes the screen less like a screen and more like a book, which is certainly appealing considering I stare at a computer all day long. And I definitely love when I finish a book, I can instantly start a new one with the touch of a button. But there is one downfall to this wonderous device: flying.
Sure, the nook is easy to pack, and I don't have to shove five books into my bag, just in case I finish one on my trip and need another to read. But the benefit of a physical book is that I don't have to stop reading during takeoff and landing. Since e-reader are electronic devices, with an on and off switch, they have to be powered down during those times, and it is beyond frustrating. That's a good forty-five minutes or so of prime reading time taken away. I'm forced to flip through one of the airline magazines or Skymall, glancing at things I'll never buy (or can't afford to buy.)

I get it, I really do. There are regulations that need to be followed. But that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

So imagine how happy I was to hear on NPR this morning that the Federal Aviation Administration is considering allowing passengers to use e-readers during takeoff and landing. A call was put out by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, urging the FAA to allow the use of portable electronic devices for the "full duration of the flight." She argues that there is no factual evidence that supports that the devices pose any safety issues.

The first question is, why do we need to turn electronic devices off during takeoff and landing? The most common reason is that they might interfere with the aircraft's communication and navigation. In addition, even though some electronic devices may not interfere, flight attendants cannot monitor all the devices on baord, and they cannot determine which ones may or may not interfere with the plane. So it's just easier to shut everything down. So the next question becomes, are e-readers capable of causing communication or navigation problems on planes?

This is what the FAA is investigating. Analysts said there are many different types of devices, as well as many different aircrafts, so the agency has to conduct thorough testing to make sure, so it may take a while to determine if e-readers will be allowed to remain in use. But I don't think it needs to be as complicated as all that. I've already conducted my own test.

The last two flights I took, I continued reading my nook when I wasn't suppose to. I kept it on during takeoff on one flight, and during landing on another. As you see, I'm typing this post right now, so the planes didn't crash. I made it safely to my destinations, and didn't end up somewhere off the grid, so the navigation worked properly. And we even arrived a little early on both flights, so communication seemed to be in tack.

Obviously, my experiences are not enough evidence to convince the FAA, but if I've done this, imagine how many other travelers have, too. As one New York Times blogger mentioned in a column, "if electronic devices could bring down an airplane, you can be sure the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration...wouldn't allow passengers to board a plane with an iPad or Kindle."

Still, the FAA continues to live by a "better-safe-than-sorry" mentality, and will enforce the rules until they sufficiently determine that use of these devices is safe or until the government introduces legislation that will force the agency to act quickly on this.

For now, I'll continue to sigh in irritation, roll my eyes and turn off my nook when asked, just to keep them happy and keep my fellow passengers safe. Unless it's a really good book.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Traveler's Ideal Gifts

A couple days ago, I visited the Flight 001 (pronounce flight one) store in Chicago to pick up a couple holiday gifts for some future jetsetters. This all inclusive shop looks like the interior of a plane, without the seats or windows or overhead bins. So basically, it's just the shape of a plane cabin. It's incredibly modern, with just a hint of retroness, thanks to its product selection. It has all kinds of unique, fun and functional items for travel, from essentials that any frequent flier would appreciate, to quirky starter kits for  novice travelers. The minute I stepped in the store, I saw at least 10 things I wanted for myself. (Of course, I had to practice some self control, since I was shopping for other people.) I was able to find exactly what I wanted, and even some things I didn't expect.

I especially liked the weekend travel bags, since most of my trips lately have been quick ones up to milwaukee. I was tempted to buy a travel blanket, pillow and eye mask (one that read "I sleep with strangers" was particularly amusing). There was also a collection of pouches that hold small essentials, like aspirin, vitamins, chapstick, makeup, etc. Each one had an illustration and funny statement. For example, there was a purple one, with a picture of a pill bottle and it read "heavily medicated for take off;" and another one with the infinity sign that read "There's never an end to a trip just another destination." There were so many choices, it was tough to decide what I wanted to get, mostly because I was making my own wish list in my head.

Flight 001 is probably one of the best places to get gifts for the traveler in your life. They have a few stores around the world, but if you aren'y lucky enough to have one near you, their website is great.

An article in The New York Times also offered some great gift ideas for frugal travelers. The first item on the list was the VIOlight Slim Sonic Toothbrush (sold at Flight 001), which is a compact, electric toothbrush that comes in a bunch of fun colorful, bright designs. The Travel Stub Diary was certainly interesting, especially as someone who saves ticket stubs to museums, shows and other events from my travels. This offers a great place to store all those lose pieces of paper. For all the foodie travelers out there, the Mobile Foodie Survival Kit is amazing! If you stay in rental properties or hostels and cook your own food, this provides all the spices one might need to prepare a quality meal. You no longer have to go out and buy a whole bottle of salt, pepper, basil, oregano, etc., and then leave tje, or have to lug a bunch of spice bottles around the rest of the trip. The "No Foreign Lands" book looked really cool. It is from the Matador Network, a travel site, and offers inspiring quotes about travel. One of note: "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." -Kurt Vonnegut. (To see the rest of the list, go here.)

So, if anyone is looking for a fun last minute gift for someone who likes to travel (cough--ME), check out Flight 001 or any of the websites featured on the New York Times list. Or just buy them a flight to anywhere in the world, I'm sure that would make them supremely happy, too!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What Christmas Means...

Every year, it seems like the holidays just sneak up on me. Before I know it, Halloween costumes are being stored away and turkeys go on sale. And just as I've polished off the last of the pumpkin pie, the ornaments are being brought out of storage and hung on the tree. My decorations have been up since the beginning of December, and most of my shopping is complete–with the exception of one or two gifts–but something is still missing. I don't quite feel swept up in the holiday spirit, despite the smell of gingerbread, the twinkling lights all around the city and an almost annoying amount of holiday music. Luckily, I know exactly what is keeping me from reveling in it all...snow. Or the lack there of.

Yes, Chicago has yet to welcome any of the tiny white flakes this year, and while many are thankful for that, I am not. Snow is what makes Christmas complete. I have had a white Christmas nearly every year since I was young, and I can count on one hand how many times it has not snowed for the holidays. I was fortunate to have snow back in Colorado last year, and I am praying for that to happen again. However, things in Chicago do not seem very promising.

Lapland, Finland. Source: CNN
So perhaps I need to venture to where I can really get in the holiday spirit: The most Christmassy places in the world.

Located just above the Arctic Circle is Rovaniemi, Lapland in Finland, considered to be the ultimate Christmas destination. Locals here argue that this is the home of St. Nick, not the North Pole, as legend would have us believe. Children can make gingerbread cookies with Mrs. Claus, take part in Elf School, or take a calligraphy class to write their wish-lists in traditional quill style. The Ranua Zoo is home to polar bears; while the Sirmakko reindeer farm lets visitors take a safari sled-led tour.

Finland is a little far to travel, at least for me, so I would considering going to somewhere in North America. Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, is an off-the-beaten-path destination, far from the flashy holiday spectacle that is New York City. The predominantly Italian-American locals have an unspoken competition among one another to see who can have the best decorations. This results in quite a spectacle of towering Santas, oversized toys, swarms of nutcrackers, and millions of lights and tinsel. An unofficial tour of these festive streets is enough to lift even the grouchiest person's mood. Add a personal tour guide with a cannoli and hot chocolate, and the experience is complete.

Our neighbors to the North also offer a pretty festive collection of attractions and events. In Quebec, Canada, you will find a tree made of recycled sheet metal that has lights powered by cyclists pedaling nearby--way to be environmentally friendly and encourage physical fitness! The German Christmas market serves up roasted chestnuts and sausage, which can be enjoyed while strolling through international nativity scenes. (Check out more Christmassy places here.)

Of course, I don't have to go all the way to Quebec to experience a German market. Chicago does have the Christkindlemarket, a tradition that I have adopted almost every year since moving here. (My collection of Gl├╝hwein boots are displayed proudly in my cabinet.) I will admit that attending this year did help boost my holiday cheer.

In Colorado, Denver hosts its Mile High Holidays, over a month of lighting ceremonies, parades, festivals, theater, music, dance, heritage and history, all centered around the holidays. The Botanic Gardens features Blossoms of Light, with over one million lights draped in designs throughout the Gardens. Zoo Lights offer more than 38 illuminated acres of lights, and 150 animated animal sculptures that create a yuletide-inspired safari. Downtown, the City and County Building is completely covered in lights and decorations, becoming a beacon for all those wandering through the streets of Denver.

I think what will really make Christmas complete is being home with my family, taking part in our annual traditions: baking fresh bread, making handmade Italian sausage from scratch, watching holiday movies while enjoying delicious pizza, and opening presents together. Family. That's what Christmas really means to me.

So there's plenty to help me get past this minor hurdle and fully embrace the holidays. And as far as the snow...there is hope. In fact, as I was typing this post, a few flakes began falling outside. After a moment of pure joy and rapture, however, they stopped. But still, it's a good sign!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Delta Tries its Hand at Humor, and Fails

If you're a frequent flier--or even if you only travel occassionally--you are familiar with the mundane airline safety presentations. Most of us zone out the moment these come on the screen or the flight attendants start doing their choreagraphed dance at the front of the plane. I've heard the schpeel hundreds of times, so for me, it doesn't seem necessary to listen to it yet again; and I know I'm not alone in this. However, airlines continue to show them, well, because they have to. (It's mostly because of legal regulations, but there are always one or two passengers who are unfamiliar with the procedures.)

While airlines realize there are expert fliers on board who could quote the entire safety demonstration, they still want passengers to pay attention. Because, let's face it, if and when an emergency does happen, how many of us know-it-alls are actually going to remember where the life vest is or how to put on the oxygen mask or where the hell the exit is--oh crap, it might be behind you!

So, in an effort to make passengers pay attention, Delta Air Lines decided to take a humorous approach. It unveiled a funny safety video last month, which includes a robot that turns itself off before takeoff, a warning sign prohibiting playing squash onboard and a passenger in a neck brace who cannot turn around to see all the exits. Delta said it wanted to provide passengers with serious information, but wanted to connect with them and give them something a little more interesting to watch. The problem? The video isn't funny at all. It's a nice effort, really, but I don't think many people will find it humorous. In fact, I think this will turn people off from watching the safety demonstrations even more than before, because it's really just the same stuff with a few random images thrown in here and there. Maybe I'm being a little harsh, so take a look for yourself.

Clearly, Delta is trying to imitate the success of Air New Zealand, which created a number of crazy and quite funny safety videos with nude flight attendants, fitness celebrity Richard Simmons and "Lord of the Rings" characters. Now those were great videos. They got passengers' attention, and they held it the entire time, because the demonstrations were actually humorous, just because they were so ridiculous. Leave it to the Kiwis to be truly innovative.

So, which video would you pay attention to?

Friday, December 7, 2012

From Here to Timbuktu

You've probably heard this saying hundreds of times in your life. I know I have. For the longest time, I thought it was just a phrase people said to describe some far off place, a long journey to distant shores, that kind of thing. I had no idea it was an actual place.

Mali. Source: CIA World Factbook
For those of you who had no idea Timbuktu is real, don't worry, you are not alone. There are millions of people in the world who believe it does not exist, and even more people believe it's a mythical location. The mysticism of this historic region can be attributed to the legendary tales brought to Europe from various explorers, painting Timbuktu as the epitome of distance and intrigue. Stories of great riches drove travelers there from all over the world. Reality is a little less glamorous than legend told, so now Timbuktu is made famous by its location, mystery and seclusion. Even the English dictionaries cite it as a metaphor for a faraway place. After learning this, I felt better about not realizing Timbuktu was a real destination.

So where is it, you ask? Timbuktu is in the western African country of Mali, which is surrounded by many other countries, including Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Senegal, Guinea, Cote D'Ivoire and Burkina Faso. Timbuktu sits along the Niger River, at the exact point where it flows northward into the southern edge of the desert, making it a natural meeting spot for dozens of local tribes. For hundreds of years, Timbuktu was where goods between West and North Africa were traded. The region has come under the rule of many empires throughout the years, and was most recently controlled by the French from 1893 to 1960, when Mali received independence. The country thrived for dozens of years on the production of certain goods, but also from its tourism industry, its third-largest revenue generator.

Nearly 170,000 visitors came to the country in 2011, helping support the economy and local businesses. However, that has come to a dead halt due to a coup that took place in March, when a group of junior soldiers took control of the presidential palace and said the government had dissolved. In addition, the northern part of the country has been occupied by militants associated with al-Qaida for years. The events pretty much killed tourism in the country, and the first half of the year only saw 7,000 people enter Mali--which I can only assume visited before the March attack. According to an NPR article, one tour guide in the city of Segou said the last big tour group he saw was in February. The story notes that hotels have laid off staff or closed all together because of lack of business, while once bustling riverside markets and restaurants are desolate. Local craftsman and performers sit around with little to do, and no source of income with which to spend on necessities like food and clothing, resulting in even more economic slowdown.

Timbuktu. Credit: Wikipedia
While the incidents of 2012 definitely hurt tourism in Mali, trouble has been brewing there for some time, particularly in Timbuktu, slowly deterring people from going.  In 2008, the al-Qaida militants started kidnapping tourist groups, and as a result, many countries started advising their citizens not to travel far from the capital of Bamako. Timbuktu saw its tourist numbers drop significantly.

It is truly unfortunate for Mali, as well as those who wish to visit its borders and witness the remains of its ancient history. The cultural treasures of the country have been crushed by the crisis, as the Islamists have demolished many historic sites in the north, which is devastating to its past and its future. While there is some hope for change and a re-establishment of the government, much damage has been done to the country, and the mystery and seclusion of Timbuktu has become even more pronounced.  It seems this remote part of the world will remain a mythical, faraway place for many.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My first cover story!

I am thrilled to report that my first cover story has been published!

It is the feature story in the December issue of Leisure Group Travel, which you can check out here!

It discusses the influx of international tourists to the U.S. and the effect it is having on the tour industry and our economy.

Please read through it and let me know what you think!!

Source: Leisure Group Travel website

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Save the Cats!

Cat Sanctuary. Credit: NY Times
A old memory from Rome came to mind today. One early morning in Rome--and when I say early, I mean just closed the bar early--my friends and I waited anxiously for the first bus of the day to appear. We sat at the bus stop across from the ruins of Torre Argentina, a site that hosts four Roman temples and the remains of Pompey's Theatre, where it is said Julius Cesar was stabbed. As I slumped in my exhausted state, a lone tabby cat sauntered across the deserted road to investigate the source of ruckus that was our crew. Considering it was a stray, it was in decent shape: healthy coat of fur, good weight, no signs of injury or malnutrition. This was a car I could take home with me. At the time, I did not realize that Torre Argentina was more widely known as the "cat forum," because of its large population of feline inhabitants. I found myself returning to the square a couple days later to find hundreds of cats playing, lounging and enjoying life amidst the ruins. I also noticed large crowds of people watching them, too, and I soon came to love visiting this site in Rome over the next few months.

This initial memory floated back to me this morning as I listened to an NPR report about the Torre Argentina Cat Shelter Association being handed an eviction notice. It was shocking. The shelter began in 1994 in a small enclosure at one end of the ruins. Over the years, founders Lia Dequel and Silvia Viviani convinced the city to provide the once primitive shelter with electricity and running water. Volunteers care for some 200 cats at the site, which are all neutered and vaccinated, along with thousands of other across the city. The group also finds homes for cats, about 125 each year. Now, archaeological officials said the shelter is illegal and must shut down. But the cats can stay, of course.

Their argument? The shelter is unsanitary and threatens to spread disease. In addition, the group claims the shelter was built without proper planning permission. But these statements have been aggressively combated by volunteers. The archaeologists said the cats make it difficult to preserve the ruins, and it is the responsibility of the organization to protect Rome's history.

It seems odd that authorities are trying to shut down what has essentially become a tourist attraction and a key part of the city's heritage. But Dequel and Viviani said they are not giving up without a fight. They submitted a petition on the Culture Ministry website, which has scored over 6,000 signatures. After the news broke, the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, said the cats are a part of Rome's history and that the shelter was not to be bothered.

I personally see no benefit in shutting down the shelter, as it help control the cat population of Rome and takes care of all these cats that would otherwise have no where else to go. If you're interested in voicing your opinion, feel free to leave a comment. Or go ahead and sign the petition and SAVE THE CATS!

Monday, December 3, 2012

More Fees? Or Just Different Ones?

Source: LA Times
Airline fees have become commonplace in the world of travel, it is difficult to remember a time when they did not exist. Ever since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the air travel culture has dramatically changed. Now, we are so accustomed to long security lines, taking shoes off, and standing in an ominous revolving scanner, it is second nature to perform all these tasks. We are unphased by all the security protocols. But one area people still have trouble accepting is the growing number of a la carte fees that airlines serve up.

According to a recent article in The Los Angeles Times, the world's largest airlines are expected to make $36.1 billion from fees. This includes food, drinks, wireless internet, priority seating, more leg room and checked bags. Some airlines even charge for checking in online, carry-on bags and expedited service through security check points. But it does not end there. At the Airline Information conference in San Diego, representatives from various airlines discussed ways to maximize the fees they charge passengers.

There was some talk of different travel insurance offers or letting passengers pre-order on-board meals and snacks, a move to reduce uneccessary spending and waste from leftover meals. One of the biggest trends, though, is basing fees on data collected from past bookings. Basically, airlines will offer package deals based on a travelers preferences, such as bundling tickets with onboard food, drinks and entertainment, at a discount.

Mining and analyzing passenger data could be seen as a bit invasive, but the reward is a specialized deal that fits you. Plus, if you can nab a discount on fees and charges that you would have paid anyway, why not? So while this trend could result in some new and different fees, the good news is that there does not seem to be any plans to add more to the menu. In fact, it looks like airlines are finally starting to get smart about looking after customers and making them happy.

Personally, I never buy on-board snacks (I tend to bring my own)or entertainment (when else do I have time to read a book), so I would like to see some other changes. I was actually reminiscing with my dad about what air travel used to be like before 9/11, and it occurred to me that the thing I miss the most is the ability to meet people at the gate, to greet them right after they've had a long flight. I think I would keep the fees if I could get that back.